The English National Ballet is deservedly proud of its direct connection to the Ballets Russes through founders by Dame Alicia Markova and Sir Anton Dolin, and this pair of programmes at the Coliseum celebrates that heritage with repertory both created and inspired by Diaghilev's pioneering company.
The big news of the night is George Williamson’s reimagining of Ballets Russes’ signature work Firebird. Gone are Fokine's scarlet tutu and apple tree, and gone too is the Russian folk-narrative of sorcerers and princes. In their place, we find an otherworldly Firebird dressed in a striking gilded catsuit, feathers steadily dismantled by the other characters who hope to gain some of her primal powers for themselves. A quick read of the notes reveals these allegorical figures are celebrities, military captains and an embodiment of Purity, although little in the choreography makes this clear.
Ksenia Ovsyanick is outstandingly sinuous in the title role, and Stravinksy's score sounds as ravishing as ever; the new work is suitably athletic with lots of nods to Balanchine in the flexed palms, big battements and deep lunges. It's great to see ENB boldly taking on the sacred cows of ballet repertory, but despite the energy of the dancers the result is a bit of a jumbled muddle.
One hundred years old this year and made at a time when every choreographer and his dog seemed to be inspired by Grecian urns, Nijinsky's L'Apres-midi d'un Faun looks like a museum piece in more ways than one. Dancers strike awkward flat poses, travelling in profile across the stage like animated bas-reliefs; the treatment is reverent but curiously lifeless. Debussy's languorous, legato score is much better served by David Dawson’s Faun(e), created in 2009. A supple duet for guest artists Jan Casier and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet accompanied by two onstage pianists, the piece is all swishy turns and rippling arm details, seamlessly musical and with a gentle undertow of eroticism.
Highlight of the evening is ENB's high-energy presentation of Kenneth MacMillan's masterful 1962 Rite of Spring. Stravinsky's thunderous score is here matched with raw, Africanistic movement – feet flexed and legs splayed, the dancer tirelessly pound the stage to the frenzied polyrhythmic score. It’s here the company are at their fiery best, three dozen bodies working as a single entity at a thrilling pace and with absolute unity of purpose. Even today, the work’s confrontation of belief and brutality has the power to shock, the Chosen One both privileged and terrified by the prospect of a public death. MacMillan’s tribal, earthbound choreography is timeless; Kinder Aggugini’s new costume design brings the presentation bang up to date.
Programme 1 (Firebird, L’Après-midi d’un faune, Faun(e), The Rite of Spring) runs from 22-27 March at the London Coliseum. Programme 2 (Apollo, Le beau Gosse, Jeux and Suite en blanc) runs from 28 March to 1 April. More information and booking at www.ballet.org.uk.